Keeping the Faith

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Catholic education tries to head off an identity crisis.

Providence, R.I.

Susan Round is squeezing in a few extra minutes of a lesson on homonyms before her 2nd grade class breaks for lunch on a Friday afternoon at the pre-K-3 Bishop McVinney Regional School in Providence.

On the blackboard she writes "two, to, and too" and tells her students to explain the difference. She does the same with "sea and see."

In large round letters, she then writes "piece" and asks for another spelling. From a squat wooden desk, a student recites: "P-E-A-C-E."

"I want you to think about the word and think of people that remind you of that word," she tells them. "Who reminds you of it?"

"Martin Luther King," call out several students, knowing their Roman Catholic school will be closed the following Monday to honor the slain civil rights leader.

"Anyone else?" Round presses, bending toward the mostly brown faces.

"God," one student says.

"Anyone else?" she repeats.

"Jonah," calls out another.

"Fantastic," says Round, straightening up. "And what did Jonah do?"

"Go to Nineveh," several chime in.


"To tell the people to stop behaving badly."

"Did the people of Nineveh follow the Ten Commandments?"

"No!" they shout.

"Did Martin Luther King follow the Ten Commandments?"


"Yes," repeats Round, with emphasis. "So that's why we think of him as a peaceful person."

The class wraps up with the students standing by their desks to sing a song about the Hebrew prophet, the 2nd graders pumping their arms to the chorus, "Go Jonah,Go. Go, Go, Go." Dressed in white and yellow shirts, with brown sweaters and plaid jumpers for the girls, Round's class then lines up at the door and heads downstairs for lunch.

Even with the teacher and students now gone, it's obvious that this is a classroom in a religious school. A copy of the Ten Commandments, handwritten on white laminated poster-size paper, is tacked up between two windows across from the blackboard. A large piece of student artwork hangs in one corner displaying crayon drawings of cloaked figures ascending into the sky. A sign at the top reads: "Acts of kindness help us climb the stairway to heaven."

Many years ago, this environment would have seemed foreign to Round.

Although she did not grow up "with a strong Catholic identity," Susan Round is now expected to fill a position traditionally held by nuns.

Growing up here, she never attended a Catholic school. In fact, she turned down her parents' offer to send her to a parochial secondary school, preferring instead to attend the city's highly competitive public school, Classical High School. While their neighbors were adamant about attending mass together each week, Round's parents rarely went to church. She attended services regularly with an older cousin.

Although she says she did not grow up "with a strong Catholic identity," Round is now a principal-in-training who will be expected to fill a position traditionally held by nuns who came of age immersed in the traditions of parochial schools and religious convents.

In fact, the Diocese of Providence sees hope in Susan Round. If a lay person with her background can lead a class, and eventually a school, without losing sight of its religious mission, then Catholic education can avoid what might otherwise be seen as an impending identity crisis.

But the diocese didn't wind up with principal candidates like Round by accident. The teacher is now in the second half of a 4-year-old leadership-training program designed to teach lay faculty the particulars of running a Catholic school.

Principal candidates attend sessions over two years on such issues as parochial school finance, marketing, communications strategies, teacher hiring and evaluations, and "Catholic identity." In the candidate's second year, a principal is assigned to him and her as a mentor. That principal allows the candidate to sit in on and help plan faculty meetings, meet with parents about disciplinary problems, and carry out other administrative duties.

Since its inception in the 1993-94 school year, the Providence leadership-training program has placed 27 of its 35 "graduates" into principal or assistant principal positions throughout the diocese. Round is one of 25 principal candidates currently in the program.

"It wouldn't have worked to just send us out to take courses on school management," Round says. "This program has built up my confidence. It's the only reason I've gone this far."

A growing number of the country's dioceses and archdioceses are designing similar programs, particularly as they hire more lay people with little or no Catholic school experience to fill administrator's positions.

"I don't think there's an educator in the country that isn't thinking: Where are we going to get the right kind of people to do in Catholic education in the future what we did in the past?" says Sister Maria Ciriello, the dean of the school of education at the University of Oregon in Portland and the editor of three widely used volumes on training Catholic school principals.

"We've been getting a great deal of positive press. ... But we must not ever lose sight of why we're here.

Sister Louise Levesque
Providence Leadership Program

Round's leadership-training program and others like it reflect the Catholic education community's need to face the overwhelming changes affecting it.

Despite the apparent significance it gives to tradition, Catholic education in the United States has changed significantly since its heyday in the late 1950s, when more than 5 million students in the United States attended Catholic schools.

Urban flight helped to halve Catholic school enrollment from the late 1950s to the 1991-92 school year, when it hit about 2.4 million, according to figures complied by the National Center for Education Statistics. The convening of a Rome council in the 1960s called Vatican II greatly liberalized the church, allowing the parishes to abandon the Latin mass and letting nuns exchange their habits for street clothes. But perhaps the most important move was that Rome emphasized the importance of lay Catholics--not just the priests, brothers, and sisters who take religious vows--in carrying out the work of the church. The number of priests in the United States has fallen from about 58,600 in 1965 to 49,000 in 1996, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington. The decline has been even more precipitous for the nuns who traditionally provided the bulk of Catholic school staff, dropping from about 180,000 in 1965 to fewer than 90,000 now.

Despite these changes, Catholic education has claimed a victory in recent years. After hitting bottom, enrollment has grown by about 200,000 students in recent years. Although much of this growth came from the addition of preschool programs to many existing Catholic elementary schools, new parochial schools also are being built, mostly in the suburbs, to meet the demands of a new generation of young parents. Some of those parents attended Catholic schools while growing up; others want their children to get a moral education along with an academic one. And though they are struggling with persistent economic problems, most Catholic schools in the cities continue to attract parents by touting their record of success in serving at-risk students. For the most part, the emergence of a Catholic school system in which about 90 percent of the teachers are lay hasn't worried most of these parents.

But the fact that parents continue to express satisfaction with the academic success of parochial schools also overshadows a deeper concern held by the church about the future of Catholic education.

"We've been getting a great deal of positive press, which we're very happy about, and the fact is that many studies show that Catholic schools are excelling," says Sister Louise Levesque, who runs training sessions for the candidates in the Providence leadership program. "But we must not ever lose sight of why we're here just because we're excelling."

While the transition from mostly religious to mostly lay teachers causes little concern anymore, the prospect of having dioceses with all-lay principals is another matter.

Vatican II spelled out that mission in its Declaration on Christian Education, in which it wrote: "What makes the Catholic school distinctive is its attempt to generate a community climate in the school that is permeated by the gospel spirit of freedom and love. ... It tries to relate all of human culture to the goodness of salvation so that the light of faith will illumine everything that the students will gradually come to learn about the world, about life, and about the human person."

The church's ability to fulfill that mission was taken more for granted a few decades ago when the church could rely more on its sisters, brothers, and priests to run its schools. While the transition from mostly religious to mostly lay teachers causes little concern anymore, the prospect of having dioceses with all-lay principals is another matter.

In the culture of Catholic education, the principal holds particular significance. In addition to the myriad responsibilities assigned to their counterparts in public education, the leaders of Catholic schools must raise funds, set salaries and tuition, hire and fire faculty, and market to parents to stay afloat.

"The relationship between the Catholic school principal and the superintendent is much more of a service relationship, rather than an authority line," says the University of Oregon's Ciriello. "He does everything that a superintendent in a small public school district would do."

Most important, however, the principal is the one who's responsible for maintaining the school's Catholic identity. In the lexicon of Catholic education, the principal is often called a "faith leader" or "the leader of a faith community," and the central part of his job is to ensure--through administrative decisions and actions as a role model--that the Catholicity permeates everything that happens in the building.

Without as many vowed religious personnel to fulfill that mission, the task is increasingly being left to lay people like Round.

"There is a worry of where are these principals going to get the vocational training to puzzle through the mess of maintaining a Catholic school so that it is still Catholic," says the Rev. Richard Jacobs, an Augustinian priest who's written a monograph on the issue for the National Catholic Educational Association. "If all my training has been in site-based management and instructional leadership and all those buzzwords, and I don't spend time working with my school's people to develop their faith, then I'm compromising my school's Catholic identity."

Few of these issues are taught in most colleges and universities with school-administration programs--the vast majority of which are geared toward public education. Even few Catholic institutions of higher education offer education-administration courses on the subject of Catholic identity because most of their students are also headed for a job in public schools.

"By not providing the vocational training to lay principals, we will become Catholic in name only," Jacobs says. "And when you ask what makes your school Catholic, they'll say things that are not any different than what you could say in a public school, or they'll say, 'Well, we have religious class, or crucifixes, or uniforms.' "

"The big difference between the public and Catholic schools is the discipline. ... You can use God and Jesus in Catholic schools in the discipline."

Henry Fiore,
Assistant Principal,
Cranston-Johnson Catholic Regional high school

Officials at the Diocese of Providence realized as much in the early 1990s when a series of retirements left them looking for qualified people to fill principalships at a number of schools.

Although the typical application review revealed whether the candidate could handle the administrative duties required, it also said little about the candidate's faith and how willing and effective he or she would be in the role of ministering to others.

"You would put an ad in the paper, and the only way we'd know them would be through references, resumes, interviews or by checking with previous employers," says Sister Sheila Durante, the school system's assistant superintendent and the coordinator of the leadership-training program. "So you'd be sending them out to run the schools without knowing much about them."

That's when Durante realized how much the diocese needed a leadership-training program, both to train prospective principals in the mission of Catholic schools and to give the diocese a chance to judge a candidate's ability to be a faith leader.

Applicants to the program start with many of the same credentials needed to work in public school administration in Rhode Island. The diocese requires five years of teaching experience and a master's degree in school administration or the willingness to earn one while in the program.

The diocese prefers that candidates teach in their own system for two years first, but it requires--with no exception--that each candidate be a practicing Catholic. Applicants must present a letter from their priest along with the usual resume and references. Even those raised as Catholics who strayed from the church may be disqualified. The diocese, for instance, has turned away a few applicants who were divorced but whose marriages were not annulled.

The program was designed with an eye to the future. Currently, Providence still has nuns leading five of its 10 high schools and 19 of its 52 elementary schools.

"We probably have more religious [principals] than most, but the reality is that in five years we could have none," says Brother William Dygert, the superintendent of Catholic schools for the Providence Diocese.

"We're now looking at the reality of lay people training lay people in religious traditions. That's something the church hasn't had to do for maybe 1,000 years."

Leonard DeFiore,
National Catholic Educational Association

The same trend holds true nationally. In the United States, lay people make up about 53 percent of the principals in Catholic elementary schools and about 38 percent in Catholic high schools. With many nuns nearing retirement age, those percentages are likely to jump in a few years.

"We're now looking at the reality of lay people training lay people in religious traditions. That's something the church hasn't had to do for maybe 1,000 years," says Leonard DeFiore, who last year became the NCEA's first lay president. "If we miss a generation, it could be near fatal."

Round admits that when she began planning her career she hardly envisioned her current position. Though she earned an education degree from Rhode Island College in 1975, she'd planned to work in the school system she knew best: the public schools. But she graduated into a tough job market and wound up working at her father's jewelry manufacturing business for several years.

Her personal exposure to parochial schools began when she transferred her oldest daughter from a public elementary school to a Catholic one.

Satisfied with the change, she wound up sending all four of her children to parochial schools.

Eventually, she started working as a substitute teacher in her children's school and at nearby public schools. She says she noticed a stark contrast between the two worlds. In the parochial schools, "the children were not out to get you. They were welcoming," she says.

"I remember at one point I went into a public school, and someone looked at me and said, 'Just remember, you're not here to teach, you're here to discipline,'" Round says. "That made a lasting impression on me."

However, not all of Round's public school experiences were negative. She says she highly values the education she received at the academically charged Classical High. She also recognizes there are some Catholic schools that are not very successful. But the difference she sees is in the ideals of the two systems.

As Ciriello explains it, the public schools treat parents and students as clients, whereas the Catholic schools treat them as "God's children."

"I think the only place you can really teach holistically is in a faith-based school," Round says. "When you go into a Catholic school, you feel the personality of Jesus. He was a friendly person, a hard worker, and he had high expectations of those around him."

Round has now been teaching 2nd grade at Bishop McVinney for five years. Working at the urban school in southeast Providence has taught her something else about her own values.

"I never thought I would love to work with inner-city kids and this population," she says. "I was very much a middle-class white person."

Although she grew up in Providence, her home is now on a farm near the Massachusetts border. She and her family share 28 acres with goats, ducks, chickens, several cats, and a dog. But each morning she commutes to the troubled neighborhood that is home to the Bishop McVinney school.

"The kids are very forgiving, and they have insights," Round says on a recent day while supervising her class at an indoor recess period. "Most of these kids have experienced things I will never in my life, like immigration and racism. I will never know what it's like to walk into a store and have people look at me."

Even after five years, though, she says she marvels at where she's wound up.

"If you had asked me 15 years ago if I'd ever be a teacher in a Catholic school, I would have felt totally inadequate," she says. "I would have said I don't have the background in theology."

In the minds of parochial-education leaders like Sister Sheila Durante, that devotion is more central to maintaining Catholic identity than knowing liturgy by heart.

As Round found out, her superiors in the Catholic school system were more interested in how she lived her values than in whether she knew all the saints by name.

"With Susan, there's an extreme dedication, especially to the kids of the inner city," says Durante, the leadership-program coordinator. "When I walk into her classroom and see all that she does with so little resources, I see someone who really and truly cares about the kids she teaches."

In the minds of parochial-education leaders like Durante, that devotion is more central to maintaining Catholic identity than knowing liturgy by heart.

To them, an effective Catholic principal is one who uses religious faith to guide every aspect of a school's administration, who can talk comfortably and publicly about his or her spiritual life, and who doesn't lose sight of the school's primary mission of spreading the gospel, despite the fact that many parents seek out the school primarily for academic reasons.

"You're living what you're reading and talking about," says Jean Patterson, the principal of the pre-K-8 St. Paul School in nearby Cranston and a graduate of the leadership-training program. "I see that in the concern for the individual, the community with the parents, the teachers who are here until 3:30 or 4 p.m., who also come in early to seek out the individual who needs that extra attentions. We're all working together to make that child's life better."

Unlike Round, Patterson attended Catholic schools while growing up in Providence. The school she leads today lacks many of the elements of the outward appearance of the Providence Catholic elementary school she attended in the late 1950s. Her principal was a nun, as was every teacher, and they all wore habits. The students' desks, each equipped with an inkwell, were arranged in rigid lines, and she remembers walking in silence to mass at the city's cathedral.

Although most of those features are gone from her current school, she starts the day by reading a prayer over the intercom. Students take a religion class and wear uniforms, and the building is adorned with religious artifacts. But even these features aren't what keeps the school Catholic, she says.

"I pattern our whole program here after the works of mercy, and if you're doing that, then you're doing what Jesus said that you should do," Patterson says.

One principal recently replaced the last of a line of nuns that had run St. Mary since it was founded.

That means not only ensuring that each school day and faculty meeting begins with a prayer, but also encouraging teachers to develop their own faith, and being willing to act as a personal counselor and minister, as well as an administrator.

"We've had parents who come to us who are victims of domestic violence, and somehow they connect us with that kind of social-service function," says Patricia Baumgartel, the principal of the St. Mary School in Pawtucket, north of Providence. "They see us as someone who might know the ropes or at least that our arms are open to them."

Baumgartel's arrival at St. Mary's two years ago signaled the end of a era for the century-old school, where the word "boys" and "girls" are still etched in the limestone over the doors on opposite sides of the building--a relic from the time when the genders were more separated. A graduate of the public school system, Baumgartel replaced the last of a line of nuns from the Sisters of Mercy order that had run St. Mary since it was founded.

Nonetheless, she believes her school is just as Catholic as when the religious order opened it. Baumgartel says she sees the measure of her school's Catholicity not in the number of religious artifacts and rituals found in the building but in more intangible things.

It's in the way she designed her office to be welcoming to students, with her handmade floral window curtains and the rocking chair she inherited from her mother. Despite her many administrative duties, she also coaches drama and teaches 8th grade math, while also taking 90 minutes every day so that she can greet each student individually at lunch and hear what's on their minds.

"Christ himself is a model of the behavior we're talking about," Baumgartel says. "The most important thing I do is act as a role model to other adults and to the students, and my faith acts out in that. The most important lessons we teach I don't think come from a textbook."

The fact isn't always understood by parents who seek a parochial school education for their children. Patterson remembers one non-Catholic couple who asked if their child could attend St. Paul but be excused from religious education. Although all students at the school do take a religious class--a requirement Patterson wasn't willing to waive--she also felt the question showed little understanding of Catholic education's mission of teaching everything through the gospel.

"It's an ongoing thing--it's not just 30 minutes in a religious class," Patterson says. "We have values that we can incorporate into any part of the day. It's hard to describe in words because it's a lifestyle."

As Levesque explains it, a school's Catholic identity isn't just reinforced by how well it teaches the religion's specific traditions but also through it's ability to weave the religious beliefs into whatever it teaches, as Round demonstrated in her recent lesson on homonyms.

"This integration of the spiritual and the religious has to be in every part of our lives," Levesque says. "In teaching math, we want you to not only be a good teacher, but we also want you to be a good person, to be a person of character, and treat the children like Jesus would."

When an ambulance siren blared past the school, the students said Hail Marys.

Not coincidently, one of the first sessions given in the Providence leadership program is the one on Catholic identity. Participants must draft a report assessing a school's culture, zeroing in on evidence of its Catholicity.

Levesque, who runs the session, says participants score few points by listing such material evidence as school uniforms, crucifixes, and statues of the Virgin Mary.

"I believe I could have a Catholic school that doesn't have all of those symbols, and that it could be just as Catholic," she says. "Because we'd be living what we believe. That's regardless of the symbols. What's nice about the symbols is that they serve as reminders."

When Henry Fiore did the assignment, he was struck most by the spontaneous things he saw, like students praying on their own during lunch. When an ambulance siren blared past the school, the students in a class he was visiting said Hail Marys.

Like Round, Fiore in some ways seemed an unlikely candidate for leading a Catholic school. Before coming to the Providence Diocese, he had only public school teaching experience. Although he attended a Catholic elementary school through grade 6, he claims to have been the class clown, and his knuckles often stung from the wrath of nuns with rulers when that was still the norm.

While he's tried a variety of jobs, rock music has been one of the main constants in his life. On evenings and weekends, he plays rhythm guitar with his band, "The Rhode Island Storm," which he says got started with the help of the musical group John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band. A photograph of Fiore and Cafferty on stage hangs over his desk--near a large crucifix and several other religious artifacts--at the Cranston-Johnson Catholic Regional high school, where he is now the assistant principal.

In Fiore's mind, the leadership-training program literally was the answer to a prayer. He says he saw an announcement for the program tacked to his church bulletin board at a time when he was praying for direction in his career. As with Round, he credits the program with showing him how much was involved in running a Catholic school.

"They really emphasized the fact that this is a ministry, and I never thought of it that way as a lay person," Fiore says. Despite all the time he'd spent on stage with his band, he recalls the cold feet he had the first time he led the schoolwide prayer in Cranston-Johnson's cavernous gym.

"The very first day, I was petrified about getting in front of 450 people to pray out loud," he says. "I'd always done that in private."

Fiore works hard to integrate his religious beliefs into his administrative duties.

Discipline is a case in point. Fiore strongly believes that discipline can be carried out more effectively in a religious school, and as an example, he mentions the case of Marisa Lupo and Ashley Power, two 5th graders at Cranston-Johnson. Although the two had long been friends, an insignificant matter last year created a rift that led to several days of scowls and glares and eventually a brief tussle between the girls.

The real test may come in a few years, when many schools no longer have the sisters to train the new principals.

Fiore brought them into his office and had each write down why their actions went against what they'd learned about the Ten Commandments. Then he had both make a list of reasons why they had enjoyed being friends with the other and had them swap lists. The bad feelings dissipated with a few tears and hugs. Marisa says she still keeps her list in her dresser drawer to look at from time to time.

"For me, the big difference between the public and Catholic schools is the discipline," Fiore says. "It's much easier to enforce here than in the public schools. You can use God and Jesus in Catholic schools in the discipline."

Scholars of Catholic schools and their religious identity believe that as long as administrators like those in the Providence program can ensure that the gospel drives what happens at their schools, then little of significance will change in Catholic education.

"It's the ethos permeating why they do what they do, and that's no different," Jacobs says. "The same moral values are present in Catholic schools today as they were 300 years ago."

Some Catholic educators, however, worry that not enough is being done to train the next generation of leaders. Not all dioceses have the resources to create leadership-training programs.

"Over the past 30 years as the number of vowed religious have declined, my personal opinion is that we were slower to get at this need than we should have been," said Theodore J. Wallace, the director of the Center for Catholic Education at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Wallace is looking into forming a credential program to help ensure that those hired have the particular qualifications needed of a Catholic school administrator.

Such a program would help address another trend in some Catholic school systems with rapidly growing enrollments: an increasing number of retired public school personnel applying for positions in Catholic schools.

"We are concerned about that," says Sister Mary Peter Traviss, the director of the Institute for Catholic Educational Leadership at the University of San Francisco. "They may be very devout about their Catholicism, but they don't know beans about Catholic schools. There is a very specific culture to a Catholic school. We have a different mission."

Currently, about 25 Catholic colleges and universities have programs for training Catholic school administrators. While that number is growing, many say it doesn't address the needs of the more than 8,000 Catholic schools in United States.

For a diocese such as Providence, the real test will come in a few years when it no longer has the sisters to train the new principals. Round says she's thankful she now has a nun for a principal at Bishop McVinney to give her guidance.

"She has never made any of us feel lesser because we don't have her religious background," Round says of her school's leader, Sister Lillian Dempsey. "I think it's helped to build up my confidence, just feeling that if she believes in me, then I can do this job." And how confident is she that she can pass the tradition on to another lay principal when she becomes a mentor?

"I don't want to think about that," she says, laughing. "I'll cross that road when I get to it."

Vol. 16, Issue 22, Page 30-35

Published in Print: February 26, 1997, as Keeping the Faith
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